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A Brief History of The Arkansas Folk Festival

Almeda Riddle and Abbie Morrison

The original Arkansas Folk Festival, which was held in April 1963 in Mountain View, was largely the creation of a handful of employees of the Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. Although the festival was initially conceived as a craft fair — in the hope of generating money for local craftspeople and for the depressed economy of the Mountain View area — one of the extension service representatives suggested incorporating music into the program. The direction of the musical component of the festival was then handed over to Stone County's most famous son, Jimmy Driftwood, who had achieved success as a songwriter and performer in the late 1950s, most notably for his song, "The Battle of New Orleans."

The festival organizers had expected Driftwood to use his Nashville connections to bring in a couple of Grand Ole Opry performers to headline the program. Instead, Driftwood had ideas of his own. A devotee of "old-timey" music, or folk music as it had come to be known, Driftwood gathered a crew of local amateur musicians — "timber cutters, farmers, housewives, and all plain people of the hills," as he put it — and arranged for them to perform in Mountain View High School's gymnasium. To almost everyone's surprise, more than 4,000 people showed up for the music show alone, and officials estimated that approximately 10,000 visitors came through town over the festival weekend. The folk music craze was just beginning to blossom nationwide, and the Arkansas Folk Festival was there to capitalize.

The Arkansas Folk Festival grew by leaps and bounds in the following years. Through Driftwood's incessant promotion on his national and international tours, through word of mouth, and through surprisingly little official publicity, within a few years the festival had become the state's biggest annual tourist event. By the early 1970s it was not uncommon for festival weekends to draw crowds of more than 100,000 visitors, which turned tiny Mountain View and its quaint town square into a mad house. The 1970s also brought the festival its most diverse crowds, as old-timers and vacationing families mingled with motorcycle gang members and hippies.

The Arkansas Folk Festival continues to hold forth each April in Mountain View. With the proliferation of festivals and small town tourist draws during the last few decades and with a slow but steady decline in interest in folk music, the Arkansas Folk Festival has found it a challenge to attract crowds approaching those of its heyday in the 1970s. Nevertheless, it remains a must-attend event for thousands of folk music fans across the country and a crucial economic boon for Mountain View businesses. And despite the encroachment of everpresent commercialism, the Arkansas Folk Festival continues to reflect the down-home appeal and front-porch sounds envisioned by its founders more than four decades ago.

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last updated on October 29, 2007
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